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Famine is embedded in the discursive practices of modernity. Hunger has only recently been brought within the province of the human sciences , and these disciplines themselves, with “man” as their object, only came into being at the end of the eighteenth and beginning of the nineteenth centuries.1 The incorporation of hunger into the episteme , or way of thinking, of the modern human sciences has refashioned it according to different, specifically modern, rationalities. It has been removed from the realm of the ethical and the political and brought under the sway of experts and technologists of nutrition, food distribution, and development. Its position there, as an appropriate subject for expert knowledge, remains a political position, but one that can lay claim to a political neutrality because of the specific way that science is construed as “truth” in modernity. Famine’s incorporation into the human sciences defines famine and food in scientific ways and leads us inexorably to particular technical forms of solution. Famine is seen as a disaster with a scientific cause. Ending famine is reduced to the question of acquiring the appropriate knowledge of the causes of famine and developing the techniques needed to apply that knowledge to produce a cure. Other views see food as more than fuel for the human machine and hunger as a recurring social tragedy, not a problem that can be solved by technology. Famine, as a scarcity of food, is part of the struggle of modernity with the question of scarce resources more generally. Modernity sees 1 1 Pictures of Hunger the solution to scarcity in progress: progress that leads from a past of privations and primitivism to a future of abundance and civilization. Contemporary accounts of prehistory confirm this perspective, but these and their assumptions have been questioned. Malthusian approaches to famine are central to the modernist view and remain influential as the base for commonsense conceptions. Contemporary neo-Malthusians combine optimists (the technical fixers: those for whom technological advances can be relied upon to find the solutions ) and pessimists (the prophets of doom). Famines occupy a central place in the political configuration of modernity. Modern politics is biopolitics: a concern for the regulation and control of populations, which replaces a politically qualified life with bare life—a form of life that can be killed but not sacrificed .2 Power over life displaces political participation and debate. Even the institutions of politics are technologized. Two specific representations of famine take place in Ethiopia in 1984/85 and in Ireland one hundred and forty years earlier. These tales are juxtaposed to highlight both similarities between the two accounts and the contending views they contain, and to consider the questions of the modern representation of famine. What controversies arise when famines are at issue within the modern world? How do we see “famine”? ETHIOPIA In Ethiopia, seven million people are threatened by starvation. Thousands have already died. The famine, caused by drought, is the worst in living memory. And now the rains have failed again for the third year in succession. The relief organisations are doing all they can, but there just isn’t enough food to go around. One of the worst hit areas is in the north of the country where the problem has been complicated by two secessionist wars in Eritrea and Tigray. Forty thousand refugees have converged on the town of Korem, in the hope of getting some food and medical aid. Our correspondent, Michael Buerk, has been back to Korem after four months, and he found the situation far worse.3 In October 1984 television pictures of starving people gathered in camps in northern Ethiopia were shown around the world. These were the opening words of the story that accompanied the film when it was shown on the BBC news: 2 · pictures of hunger Dawn. And as the sun breaks through the piercing chill of night on the plain outside Korem, it lights up a biblical famine—now, in the twentieth century. This place, say workers here, is the closest thing to hell on earth. Thousands of wasted people are coming here for help. Many find only death. They flood in every day from villages hundreds of miles away, dulled by hunger, almost to the point of desperation.4 The piece was shown in the lead spot on the six o’clock bulletin largely by chance. It was otherwise a slack news day, and any one of a handful of fairly substantial stories could have been chosen.5 In...


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